Pat Easton (Pennsylvania West)
Over the last few months RAWI has carried announcements of several regional committees to promote diverse books. This is wonderful. The events of the last few weeks have made apparent the dire need for these books. I am sure many of you are aware of the “series of unfortunate” words at The National Book Award presentation to Jacqueline Woodson. And we all know about the demonstrations and riots after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. The demonstrations are about much more than the tragic killing of Michael Brown: they are an explosion of frustration over the continuing inequality in this country. The images shown on the news must frighten our young people, young people who live in a world torn by racial, religious, social, national, and international conflict. This does not just apply to the United States. Our international regions have populations of marginalized people as well, so this applies to all of us. We are an organization whose mission is to help young people understand their world through literature, so let’s look at exactly how diverse books do this.
In the children’s literature course I teach at Washington and Jefferson College, diverse books play a huge part. I define these books as ones that are about or include any racial, ethnic, cultural or social group not considered part of the majority or mainstream culture. We also include international books. I tell the future teachers who are my students that a good children’s book must serve two functions for its readers; it either affirms the reader who finds him or herself in the pages or creates empathy in the reader who gains understanding of a character or characters who are not like the reader. Both culturally generic and culturally specific books serve this function. Culturally generic books, like Ezra Jack Keats’s THE SNOWY DAY, in which a small black child enjoys his day in the snow just as any child would, show how all of us are alike. Culturally specific books, like THE SKIN I’M IN by Sharon Flake, contain plots that depend on the details of a specific culture and explain our differences.
Children not only need to know how we are all alike but they also must learn to understand and celebrate the cultural differences among people. Those of us who heard Sherman Alexie’s keynote a few years ago at the LA conference will remember what he had to say about this. He talked about how he had written THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN for kids who were like he was, because he wanted them to know that it was all right to fight for what you needed in life. He soon became aware, however, that many of his readers were from prep schools and privileged communities, not at all like the kid he had written about, yet they still felt that pain. He said, “If you write a book about a certain kind of kid and that kind of kid reads the book and gets it, that’s great. But if you write a book about a certain kind of kid and a kid who is not like that kid reads it and gets it, that’s how you change the world.”
So what is the current situation? Approximately 10% of books published in the U.S. show children from diverse populations, yet those children make up about 37% of our nation’s children. All children should be able to find themselves in the pages of their books to affirm who they are, so the need for us to promote the writing and illustrating and ultimately publishing of such books becomes very important. When we realize, however, that all children need these books to help them to understand, accept, and finally celebrate the differences of our diverse population, then the need to promote those books becomes essential for all of us. So as we go out into our communities, region by region, let’s do our best to promote diverse books. Our children desperately need them. Suzy Williams and I are working on a project to bring diverse books into the schools. We would love you to share your favorite diverse books with us as well as your ideas to support diverse authors and illustrators and promote diverse books in your region. Please remember that “diverse” includes various racial, ethnic, religious, and gender groups as well as physically and mentally challenged people. Send your book titles and ideas to Pat Easton (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Suzy Williams (email@example.com)
AFTER 23 YEARS AS RA IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA, PAT EASTON RETIRED LAST JANUARY. SHE HAS SEVEN PUBLISHED BOOKS, FIVE OF THEM FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. HER CHAPTER BOOK, DAVEY’S BLUE-EYED FROG, WON THE BEVERLY CLEARY CHILDREN’S CHOICE AWARD. AT WASHINGTON AND JEFFERSON COLLEGE, SHE TEACHES CHILDREN’S LITERATURE TO FUTURE TEACHERS, WHICH SHE CONSIDERS A MISSION FROM GOD. THE CLASS HAS A STRONG DIVERSITY EMPHASIS, AND HER INTEREST IN CREATING MULTICULTURAL CLASSROOMS THROUGH LITERATURE HAS GROWN THROUGH HER TEACHING.